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Will the Tea Parties Revive the Christian Right?

This weekend in Washington, organizers of the fifth-annual Values Voter Summit gave attendees from the Christian Right a primer on their new conservative counterparts, the Tea Partiers. The goal? To assuage any concerns that the Tea Parties, with their razor-sharp focus on fiscal issues, are at odds with traditional social conservatism.

Among the three-day summit’s events was a presentation entitled “Who are the Tea Party and Christian Voters and What Do They Believe?”; another called “We the People: The Tea Party’s Place in American Politics”; and a get-out-the-vote seminar, led by an operative for the Tea Party Patriots. One by one, big-name Republican politicians—Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, and Michele Bachmann, to name a few—assured the more than 2,000 people gathered for the summit that Tea Party values are not in conflict with the agenda of the Christian Right. Tea Party kingmaker Jim DeMint declared, “You cannot be a true fiscal conservative if you don’t have a culture based on values.” And Christine O’Donnell, the quintessential values-veteran-cum-Tea-Party-enthusiast, said of the rise of the new conservative grassroots, “Those who had toiled for years in the values movement suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Americans who had found the most important value of all: liberty.”

Who can blame the Christian Right for needing a little reassurance that it isn’t obsolete? Tea Party activists are the new go-to agitators of the conservative base. The 2004 election, when “values voters” helped push George W. Bush to victory, and the 1994 Republican revolution, when Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, bolstered by the Christian Coalition, ushered in the first GOP-controlled Congress in over 40 years, seem like distant memories. Today, the famed Contract with America has been superseded by the Tea Party’s decidedly more secular Contract from America. (And it surely doesn’t help the Christian Right’s confidence that, when Obama won in 2008, the media claimed “Democrats got religion” and were “leveling the praying field,” in their attempts to close the “God gap” among American voters.)

But, while it might make sense for the Christian Right to seek its place in the Tea Party insurgence, does the new guard really think there’s enough room at the table for the two groups to coexist? Some Tea Partiers warn that the movement will fracture itself or drive away key supporters—like nonreligious libertarians and independents—if it seems too Republican or Christian. Indeed, they would have us believe that they are pushing a new brand of non-partisan secularity. “We should be creating the biggest tent possible around the economic conservative issue,” Ryan Hecker, one of the creators of the Contract from America, has said. “[S]ocial issues may matter to particular individuals, but at the end of the day, the movement should be agnostic about it.” And, according to Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, the “diversity of opinion” on social issues is part of the “beautiful chaos” of the Tea Party.

Of course, the Tea Parties share a lot of common ground with the Christian Right, both politically and religiously. This summer, a Gallup poll found that eight out of ten self-identified Tea Partiers were also Republican and that there was “significant overlap” between the two groups. Earlier this year, a New York Times/CBS poll found that only 16 percent of Tea Partiers thought gay couples should be allowed to marry, compared to 39 percent of overall respondents. More than half of Tea Partiers (53 percent) disapproved of Roe v. Wade, compared to 34 percent of all respondents. (For more on this, see our own Ed Kilgore on abortion and the Tea Party.) And, of course, the movement’s biggest figureheads—Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin—have a decidedly religious and Republican bent.

So the we-can-all-get-along message delivered at the Values Voter Summit was accurate, and may become a key mantra as the country heads toward Election Day, repeated ad nauseum by Tea Party leaders seeking as many votes as they can wrangle. (Just last week, Dick Armey, who now leads FreedomWorks, said “[social] issues are too important to be left behind and they won’t be left behind” if Republicans retake Congress.)

But still, that political maneuver wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a revival of the Christian Right’s importance in the U.S. political landscape. A new report, released on September 17 by the Pew Research Center, found that culture-war favorites—abortion and gay marriage—are at the bottom of top voter concerns, even among evangelicals. High on the list are Tea-Party favorites, like the economy and jobs. As Mississippi governor-turned GOP presidential hopeful Haley Barbour pointed out recently, social issues “ain’t going to change anybody’s vote this year.”  

In other words, even if values voters ride the Tea Parties’ coattails and help Republicans recapture Congress, their social agenda might not gain much urgency. Rather, the Christian Right seems likely to remain what it is now: A mere vestige of its former self.